Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chopping logic with Horses

In response to Sarah's post below, I'll add that the limnal space that Gulliver occupies was a space of great controversy and debate in the early 18th century, and theological writers in particular got tangled up in complicated debates about where to draw the line between animal and human. See for example this excerpt from John Claggett, Arianism anatomized: or animadversions on Mr. Thomas Chubb's book, intitled, The supremacy of the father asserted. Being a reply to his eight ... London, M.DCC.XVIII. [1718].

"Suppose we, that an Angel by the power of God should be united to and accuate the fleshy part of a horse, as the animal soul of a horse doth; I demand whether the Composition (tho' to human appearance he might seem a horse) would be therefore a true Horse; and ... whether then Angel would be really and truly a part of the Brute, whose Body he acted" (66).

Clearly, the flesh vs. soul problem is what underwrites this argument, and this kind of logic (which was to his mind deeply irrational) is certainly a target of Swift's satire.

Thomas Gray's, "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat," is a curious poem. The prefatory letter to Horace Walpole suggests that the poem is meant to mock Walpole's love for his animal. Perhaps it was jealousy of Walpole's election to the royal society, or perhaps they are friends and he is merely poking fun of Walpole, but Gray takes delight in making fun of the cat. He even begins by pointing out that he has no idea which of Walpole's cat died in a most unfortunate drowning accident and goes on to say that the poem is one of his best literary achievements.

Clearly he finds the death of the cat quite humorous as he goes on to describe the cat's unfortunate drowning accident:

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent 25
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

In no way should one take Gray's account seriously, however I would like to discover his intent. Was Gray being malicious in his mockery or was he merely having a laugh with a friend?

Rejoice in the Lamb?

I was not surprised to learn that Smart wrote this in an asylum. I don't think I have ever been so confused by a poem. However, I have always been terribly confused by "cat people." Whether it is my own imagination or a deliberate technique, Smart's poem captured a strong sentiment of loneliness and isolation. I especially experienced this in the description of the cat. I think the intimate attention to Jeoffry's behavior indicated countless hours of sitting and watching one of the most inactive creatures on the planet. Smart's description of Jeoffry's daily routine encapsulates 24 hours of animation in 74 lines, and half of those lines are simply products of the narrator's imagination. In my opinion, a sincere fascination in this activity suggests endless tedium. I am reluctant to submit this as my interpretation of lines 120-173 because I suspect that "cat people" really love this type of poetry. I bashfully admit that I was greatly exhilarated when the rat bit Jeoffry's throat...

The Mouse's Petition - yet another interpretation

Although I think all of the aforementioned interpretations seem perfectly valid, I interpreted it the poem of the mouse in the trap as an allegory relating to the lower classes of England. Until pretty recently in British history, debtors prisons were quite common. And, like the characters in Dickens' Oliver Twist, many people were in desperate straits, unable even to acquire enough food to eat and having to steal to make a living or even to avoid starvation. The mouse, for his part, only tries to takes the crumbs that are left on the floor from a great feast...thus demonstrating the large economic gap and class divisions between the wealthy and the poor. So, from my perspective, the mouse represented one of these people stuck in the lower class and unable to get out, literally caught in a trap and unable to free himself from an inferior societal role.

I think one more connection that supports the relationship between the lower classes and the mouse is the fact that the mouse is found on the floor of a hospital ward. The hospitals, which should have helped, healed, and protected the poorer classes, were only one more representation of a callous, bureaucratic, class-conscious society that was tailored towards the rich and left the poor asking "Please, sir, may I have some more." And for the mouse, that little more that he asks is for a few breadcrumbs. What happens as a result? He is snapped up in a trap, "trembl[ing] at th' approaching morn/ Which brings impending fate."

The Mouse's Petition- An appeal for the religious minority

After reading the poem by Barbauld and further researching her I believe that her piece could be an allegory protesting the discrimination of religious minorities. She herself was a Presbyterian dissenter which made her a part of a disenfranchised religious minority. In the poem there is a serious appeal to consider all men as equal and to not exploit others. She appeals to the ideal of universal brotherhood in the section:

Beware, lest in the worm you crush
A brother's soul you find ;
And tremble lest thy luckless hand
Dislodge a kindred mind.

A previous blogger has suggested that this poem is alluding to slavery and the plight of slavery. While I agree that this is a probable and fitting assumption. I believe that the poem speaks more to the immediate reality of its author, at least in part. I believe the piece is more fully read as an allegory fighting against the evil of the slave trade as well as all unfair treatment of disenfranchised peoples.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Instability and Perspective: Purgatory in Horse Land

Thinking further about the discussion of Gulliver's perspective in Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, it seems that not only is he occupying a different sort of space from the first two books, but that he is unable to maintain his hold on this space. In Books I and II, Gulliver was able to occupy one side of a binary: either tiny or gigantic in proportion, completely cast as an "other" in these societies. In the land of the Houyhnhms, Gulliver walks into a society in which a binary already exists. Gulliver, however, cannot identify completely with either side of the dialectic and therefore occupies a liminal space, resting in a sort of purgatory between the Houyhnhms and the Yahoos. His addition into the society creates a third dimension, which is cast as inherently unstable. Gulliver cannot negotiate his way as a thrid party in this binary, and begins the process of identifying as a Yahoo, and the self-loathing that accompanies that identification. In terms of the satire of the novel, this oscillation in the liminal space in between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos parallels Swift's move to invoke a sense of universal satirization. From his/Gulliver's place within the society (instead of outside of it, as was posible in the other books), however, this process breaks down, leaving Gulliver's self-identification unstable.

Nor all that Glisters Gold

Thomas Gray's 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes" is one of my favorite poems. One of the most interesting aspects of this poem is that it is an a cat. An ode is usually a serious poem exalting somebody important, so the fact that he writes this poem to a cat is humorous in some ways. His description of the cat can also be seen as how he portrays women: vain, shallow, and weak.
Stanzas 4 and 5 in particular reflect this view, as he describes Selima the cat as a "hapless nymph" who is drawn to her own reflection in the pond, drawing a comparison to Narcissus, whose vanity led to his drowning, and this is much the same way Selima goes. I particularly like the lines "What female heart can gold despise? / What cat's averse to fish?" Gray also compares her to a "Presumptuous maid," as if she has stepped out of line, and needs to be taught a lesson. My favorite stanza of the entire poem is the last one, where Gray teaches a lesson, presumably to the "beauties undeceived." His over-arching theme though, is not to be deceived by appearances, and that which may appear beautiful is only an illusion.

"Slavery" portrayed in a Mouse

While reading "The Mouse's Petition," I immediately saw the mouse's ensnarement in the trap as an allegory to slavery. This idea was first brought to my attention in the first line, "hear a pensive captive's prayer." The poem is portrayed entirely through the perspective of the mouse - who is interestingly personified and given a very "human-like" voice to the audience. The mouse is beginning his captor to set him free, and spare his innocent soul from the bondage of the trap. This is, in many ways, a direct parallel to the system of slavery during this time.
"A free-born mouse detain."
This line calls to mind identical images of the free-born Africans being caught and sent to America in bondage. The mouse goes on to include images of "brother" and "shared life" suggesting that the mouse's (or slave's) life is equal in value to that of his captor's. With the concluding stanza, "So when unseen destruction lurks... And break the hidden snare," the mouse provides strong parallels to his own captivity and that of human's enslaved by their human brothers.
I'm not sure whether or not the author intended to write an allegory for the issue of slavery, but it is the dominate image that sticks in my mind after reading this poem. Another possibility of critique could be the class structure of England at this time. Perhaps the author was suggesting that England's poor were enslaved and trapped into their status by the powerful of British society, and that the destitute were regarded as little more than street mice or vermin...?

Passer, Deliciae Meae Puellae

If there's one effect that taking Latin in high school has had on me, it's that whenever I read a piece of literature I find connections between whatever it may be and something written by Ovid, Vergil, or one of those other old Romans.

In this case, it was Catullus of whom I was reminded. In Roman society, animals were obviously valued because of their economic worth and their spiritual importance (sacrifices, etc). However, in most cases, whenever an animal served a significant role in a work, it was almost always actually a god in animal form. For instance, when Jupiter took on his numerous forms in order to get with a bunch of women while (unsuccessfully) hiding from his wife. Catullus was sort of a weirdo, though, and often broke convention.

In two separate poems about Catullus' love interest, Lesbia, he envied her pet sparrow (and mourned it, in the second one). While he didn't it them as if it had a soul like in the poems we're reading, it's still always a significant event when an animal in its own form is put at the center of events. Whether it's being jealous of a sparrow or pitying and missing the soul of a deceased pet, the convention of personifying an animal has always indicated an emotional and important event for the author.

Quick side note: Did anyone besides myself think of Where the Wild Things Are after seeing an image of the "beasts" from Part 4 of Gulliver's Travels alongside the description?

Animal Lovers in the 18th Century

As I read Barbauld's The Mouse's Petition, it became very clear that she was making an argument against the ill-treatment of animals at the time. However, unlike Cowper for instance, who depicts Tiney the hare in a very natural and realistic way, Barbauld idealizes the mouse in her poem by allowing the mouse to have a very rational voice. Although the narrator in the poem is a mouse, she gives it human attributes and calls on human feelings to create parallels between humans and animals: "Oh! hear a pensive captive's prayer,/For liberty that sighs;/ And never let thine heart be shut/ Against the prisoner's cries" (lines 1-4). The image of enslavement is very powerful in the poem because it evokes emotions in the reader and pushes for a sense of empathy. More importantly, it forces the reader to think about the treatment of animals in light of slavery, which had been abolished in Britain at the beginning of the 18th Century. Therefore, this politically and socially charged image of a chained and confined prisoner is one that is strategically used by Barbauld to join humanitarian/abolitionist efforts with those defending the rights of animals in a way: "If e'er thy breast with freedom glow'd,/ And spurn'd a tyrant's chain,/ Let not thy strong oppressive force/ A free-born mouse detain" (lines 9-12). Like the people fighting against the institutions of slavery in Britain in the 17th Century, the mouse is asking for humans to fight for animal rights. It all comes down to animals having feelings like humans do.

There is no Heaven on Earth

Swift has a problem with the Houyhnhms, and so do I: they are emotionless and truly inhuman. While Gulliver delights in this extreme employment of reason to practice the “highest virtue”, Swift satirizes Gulliver’s acceptance of it. Although Gulliver says, “their Language expressed the Passions very well” (212) and the note that accompanies this line declares, “The Houyhnhms may be austere but they are not presented as passionless”, I think that Swift disagrees, and I do too. They “have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles” but their care derives from “the Dictates of Reason” (250). They trade children so that each family can have one male and one female child. They do not grieve death, and they marry based on eugenic principles. We have discussed in class how the other books show a perversion of Gulliver’s reason, but I believe that Swift displays the ultimate perversion of reason: when reason becomes a god that dispels other good qualities. Reason is a good and proper thing as long as it informs correctly. Is eugenics correct? From a moral standpoint, not at all. The Houyhnhms’ use of reason is devoid of moral checkpoints that allow reason to correctly inform the conscience. Swift gives the Houyhnhms great faculty of mind but leaves them devoid of spirit. I believe this is to remind us that humans are not simply brains but hearts and souls as well: a person would not be considered complete without one or the other. In fact, we tend to label people “psychopaths” when they lack a moral conscience and seem to lack an inner spirit or emotions. We label them “gluttons” or “idiots” when they allow themselves to be driven by pure desire, unrestrained by reason or “common sense.” Gulliver’s Travels, then, points out what is wrong with a society when it is governed simply by the heart (desire) without the employment of the brain (reason) and what is wrong with a society that is simply governed by the brain without being tempered by the heart. There is no utopia because on earth there is no perfect balance between head and heart—man is an imperfect creature who cannot maintain the balance every moment of his life. Swift encourages men to search after this balance and try to live it out. This will lead to a better society—one in which selfish balls of desire nor emotionless, inhuman creatures reign, but instead one in which people strive to use their heads and hearts to attain as perfect an enjoyment of humanity as can exist on earth.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gulliver's Character Development

While reading part IV I focused a lot on Gulliver's character development. In class we had discussed possible instances in the first two parts of the novel where Gulliver's character was possibly developing, and Professor Porter told us that scholars still debate the extent of Gulliver's character development. Throughout the fourth part, I couldn't help but come to the conclusion that Gulliver actually regresses from parts I and II. In the first two parts we see Gulliver learning things, and we sympathize and relate to his character and circumstances. However, in Part IV Gulliver seems to go off the deep end from spending so much time with horses. He becomes alienated from human society, talks to horses for hours when he gets home, and hates his family. It's as if he spent so many years looking for somewhere better to live than in Europe that he became completely detached from human society, and the reader loses faith in him.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Satire versus Reality in regards to the Legal World

As I was reading Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, I was really interested in chapter five when Gulliver explains the state of England, the causes of war, and the English constitution. These are complicated subjects and require careful wording even to people who have a knowledge of this information. So when I read that Gulliver was going to explain all this to his master, I was imagining him confused about the law, war, and the importance of it. Gulliver is very pompous and arrogant as he goes through these points. "I could not forbear shaking my Head and smiling a little at his Ignorance." (page 230, second paragraph) As he was describing war, he comes across as more important because he had seen ships sinking with twenty thousand men, limbs flying through the air, and other firearms of war. I was surprised at the Master's response and his concern over hearing these details. I am still trying to understand the satire and deeper meaning but I think it could be viewed as a warning to the public about the dangers of becoming to numb to these aspects of society and what affect they came have on a person's mind.
In the last paragraph of this chapter, it seems like he is making fun of the lawyers and their lack of true wisdom and knowledge. My mind immediately goes to the Charles Dicken's book Bleak House because it is full of lawyers and legal proceedings. These descriptions match the characters in Bleak House and I feel like it is not as much satire as it is reality during this time. They are taking advantage of their clients every way possible and maybe Swift is trying to arouse the public and help them realize what is going on in the legal world of their own country.

"Discomposed" OED Investigation

As I began reading Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, the word "discomposed" caught my attention. I had never encountered it before, and though it was fairly obvious what the word means, I still was curious enough to look it up on OED. Sure enough, to "discompose" means to disturb, ruffle, unsettle or disquiet and was first used in 1493. It doesn't seem that this word is frequently used these days, which is too bad because I find it to be perfect for situations such as Gulliver's hat being nuzzled by a horse.

Because the word contains "composed", there is a distinctly British air about it, suggesting that the situation is throwing off or threatening the composure of the victim. Traditionally, the British aren't known for their outdoor skills, but rather for their refinement and ability to keep their composure ( I'm reminded of the "Keep Calm and Carry On"World War I slogan), so this old word is perfectly used to describe an Englishman bumbling his way through the wild. Our narrator's composure is constantly challenged throughout his travels, but do these challenges bring about a change in his character? He does live as a Yahoo for a time, a people far less dignified than the English, but he is incapable of living that way forever. Is it even possible to extract the Englishman from within Gulliver, though he is far removed from England itself? It is my impression that Gulliver does not undergo any major changes in personality or philosophy, so though Gulliver loses his composure momentarily, he remains British through and through in the end.


Anthropological Perspective/Colonialism

Throughout "Gulliver's Travels" I have been intrigued by the abstracts at the beginning of each chapter. A brief, emotionless description is given of the events as if they are viewed objectively even though Gulliver is nothing but involved and biased in the situations. The content of each book makes it clear that the facts are not true, but the abstracts seem to imply that the reader should judge the information and assess its validity. The brief descriptions also involve Gulliver, which implies that we should also analyze his behavior and thoughts. The novel becomes Swift's experiment as he explores his ideal society.

I was also fascinated by the complete deviation from the theme of altered sizes to another change in perspective based on animalism. While the previous books seemed to criticize the colonialism and voyeurism of Great Britain, this book seems to imply that the "yahoos" (which I think represent the natives, "uncivilized," people of other lands) should be subjugated because of their baser instincts. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the issue or have not looked at the role reversal of horses and people in each setting, but it seems that this book supports colonialism?

Fallen Humanity

I found part 4 of Gulliver's Travels to be the most insightful of all the parts we read. Gulliver arrives on the Island of Houyhnhnms where the roles of humans (Yahoos) and horses (Houyhnhmns) are inverted. At the beginning, Gulliver portrays a very crude depiction of the Yahoos, creatures that look like humans, except maybe a little bit hairier. Gulliver describes the females saying that "Their Dugs hung between their fore feet, and often reached almost to eh Ground as they walked" (209). For the entire first part of part 4, Gulliver believes himself to be superior to these Yahoos, but after telling his "Master," who is a horse, all about the society he comes from, he realizes that he is essentially a Yahoo as well. Swift's disdain for the nobility comes out in his explanation that the nobility have a "weak diseased Body, a meagre Countenance, and sallow Complexion" (239). After all of this reflexion on the race he believed to be better than anything else, after spending time with the reasonable Houhynhmns, Gulliver starts to see human corruption when he "opened [his] Eyes, and enlarged [his] Understanding, that [he] began to view the Actions and Passions of Man in a very different Light" (240).

Towards the end, Gulliver can no longer look at his own reflection, as all he sees is fallen humanity, and he is ashamed to be part of the species of Yahoos. He becomes such a degenerate creature that he creates his clothes out of the skins of Yahoos, or essentially, humans. He cannot stand to live in a society full of corruption, and his disdain and hatred for the British is so great that he calls his wife an "odious animal," and says that the very smell of his own children was "intolerable" (271). The satire is very evident at the end when he says that after one year he allows his wife to sit with him at dinner at the opposite end of a far table, but Swift definitely illustrates the notion that while the British looked down at foreign people, they themselves lived in squalor, but they were too arrogant and blind to see it.